Refusing to Review Self-Published Books

This article at the Los Angeles Review of Books sets out to make the point that there are far too many self-published books and explore the stigma of that label, but I found it more enlightening in its comments on review policies. Apparently major media, newspapers and magazines, don’t cover self-published works as a rule, believing them to be more “amateurish”.

Types of Self-Published Book Readers

Cartoon found here without authorship noted: http://podpeep.blogspot.com/2010/03/sunday-picture_21.html

The Washington Post does not review self-published books. The Post’s fiction editor Ron Charles admits, “We simply don’t have the staff to wade through the torrent of submissions that would come in.”

Laurie Hertzel, Books Editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, doesn’t review e-books or self-published books. “I receive about 1,000 books a month from commercial publishers, large and small,” she says, “and it’s all I can do to keep up with them. Adding e-books and self-pubbed books to that mix would quickly raise the number to something closer to infinity.”

Steve Paul of the Kansas City Star says, “…The main problem is that self-publishers think they don’t need editors. And real editors and real publishers serve as a gateway, making the first judgment of whether a manuscript is of interest beyond the author and his family.”

Freelance reviewer Mark Athitakis has never reviewed an indie-published book [and] says, “I somewhat testily discourage writers from pitching me self-published books. I get some testy emails in response, but the fact is that reading a book is time-consuming, and while I’ll try pretty much anything, I want evidence that more than one person was excited enough about a book to see it into print before I invest that time.”

These sources rely on publishers to serve as a filter, believing them to have winnowed out lower-quality books, so that the big name becomes a way to vouch for the quality of the material.

Comics has always been different when it comes to this, without people looking down as much on those who self-publish. (The term “vanity press” doesn’t have any meaning in comics.) After all, when you have gifted creators achieving success with works such as Bone or Finder or Strangers in Paradise, it’s hard to argue that self-published works are poor quality. And artist-driven works are often more interesting, vibrant, and creative than the franchise maintenance works coming from the big US comic publishers, as well as more diverse in subject, genre, and viewpoint.

Still, for a second, I was thinking about how different my to-do stack would be with this rule in place. I’d have more time for books from outlets like Oni, Top Shelf, and Dark Horse, less for discovering the next artist to watch.


13 Responses to “Refusing to Review Self-Published Books”

  1. Darryl Ayo Says:

    Good friend and I had a nice discussion about this phenomenon. We both agreed that the antipathy toward self-publishing in the book world and the positive associations with self-publishing in the comics world are equally appropriate given both industries’ contexts.

  2. Joshua Says:

    This strikes me as one of the reasons newspapers are the fastest-shrinking industry in America. Yes, if you wait for people to send you stuff to review and pick from that, you’d be overwhelmed. But finding out whether there’s more enthusiasm for an e-book than just the author and family is literally just a click away. Reviewers could be doing something valuable for their readers by looking through what’s actually selling and getting good feedback from more than just two people on Amazon and other e-publishers, and bringing it to people’s attention. There’s no reason that owning (or these days, hiring) a printing press and paying the salaries of all the folks needed to produce and distribute the physical makes the publishers a better “gatekeeper” for the consumers than the reviewers themselves would be… but instead they’re content, even proud, to be an additional redundant layer between the author and the reader. After all, if the publishers really are any good at the gatekeeper function, how much extra value is the reviewer really adding?

  3. Caanan Says:

    No reviewer wants to stand up and blow the horn for something that will never catch on. It’s bad for business when people jump off your train of judgement.

    But then, how will things catch on for the little guys if no-one’s blowing their horn??

    I imagine it’s easier to spot quality in a self-published comic because of the visual element, than in a wall of text novel. You could flip through a GN in a minute to see if it’s worth reading in full, but scanning a novel for a minute? Unless there’s glaringly obvious typos littered throughout, there’s really no way of telling if it’s going to be any good or not from a brief flip.

  4. Johanna Says:

    Joshua, reviewers presumably don’t have a financial stake in the books, so they can provide an unbiased opinion. The publisher says “we think this is worth bringing to an audience”; the reviewer says whether they were right or wrong. :)

    What you’re describing sounds to me more like linkblogging, or a curated recommendation column.

    Caanan, it’s true that (at least online) covering popular works gets you more attention, and thus more audience, and thus more ability to get more works to cover. And yes, that’s an interesting way in which GNs are different from novels, good point.

  5. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Johanna,

    This reminds of the author who was very successfully self-publishing via Amazon and Kindle. She only signed a book contract so that she could get a review in the NY Times since that would help expand her audience further.

    So many authors are looking at royalty rates these days and deciding that self-publishing makes more sense.

    Also, I’m told by experienced authors that B&N is very easy to work with in setting up your own store appearance.

    You’re right. Newspapers that ignore the self-published market are making themselves irrelevant.

  6. Tom Ramirez Says:

    As one who has had no less than 5 published reviews of my self-published comics, let me be the first to admit that I need an editor. Every review of my work has been useful to one extent or another. And as long as the creator doesn’t have an ego problem, every review counts towards honing his or her craft.

    I know creators both good and bad who deserve attention because we need those filters. It’s how we separate the Princelesses from the Sonichus”. If a reviewer’s highest concern is making a name for themselves, they do not understand the virtue of reviewing. It is the will to make others famous (or infamous) because one is placing value the content of the critiqued work. She bestows praise upon competence and mocks incompetence. Hence, a true reviewer loves to fame the craft, not herself. One is punished most for one’s virtue, after all.

  7. Adam Says:

    Who’s to say these self published authors DON’T use editors?

    And you know, there’s numerous self published authors hitting up a storm right now with contracts, movie deals, making a boatload of money, etc.

    Sounds like times are changing with or without these people.

  8. Tom Ramirez Says:

    A positive claim requires positive evidence. But if you want to take this to court, I just pulled 8 random titles from my small press collection:

    Buffalo Speedway #1 by Yehudi Mercado
    Stink by Messinger, Belcher, Lail and Castro
    Zombie Killers by Jennifer Gosk
    Princeless #1 by Whitley, Goodwin, Belton and Kim
    The Bean #1 by Travis Hanson
    Waiting for Something to Happen #1 by Jason Dube
    Jimmy Ricochet Private Investigator by Craig Wilson
    Islands in the Sky by Tsai and Wong

    Of these eight, only two, Princeless and Stink, credit an editor and both have publishers (Action Lab and Creators’ Edge). Though I now have to correct the mistake of assuming Princeless was self-published, it only further emphasizes my point.

    The rest have to rely on reviews in order to gain recognition. They have no press, save for what they can make themselves. And believe me, some of those comics are damn cool.

  9. Johanna Says:

    It’s true, any self-publisher has to be as good at sales as they are at art to succeed (if you’re basing that measurement on sales/making back costs).

  10. Joshua Says:

    @Johanna, no, not link blogging or curating. I *do* believe in the value of a good reviewer (I read CWR, after all). I’m just pointing out that what those reviewers are saying is a rationalization so transparent you have to wonder whether they’ve ever even looked at the Kindle Store or any similar e-book publishing website. For that matter, they could read their own newspapers, which have covered the rise of highly successful self-published e-book authors.

  11. Rivkah La Fille Says:

    Because comics are a visual medium, they are far easier to judge at a glance as to whether they will be either a) suited to your tastes or b)competently created in a style you will enjoy than a prose novel would be. It’s a little more difficult to open a prose novel and glance at a page and know that you’ll like it from a few random paragraphs. Usually with prose, you have to sink into the story before knowing whether you want to climb back out again are sink further.

    Also, the sheer volume of self-published prose novels compared to self-published comics is overwhelming. Even small presses have a difficult time getting their books reviewed compared to the big players like HarperCollins and Random House because there are just too many of them, but I could put all the self-published comics in the last year and their cartoonists in a single mid-sized convention with a room to spare. It’s depressing really. ;_;

    Had this discussion many many times with writers looking at self-publishing and how I think it’s a horrible idea unless you plan on starting a brand and your own publisher or specializing in a niche that can be marketed to specific consumers.

    I think it’s a fabulous idea for cartoonists, however, especially when the digital age makes it even easier for the casual browser to stumble across an image or excerpt of your work and judge in an instant whether or not they’re going to be interested in reading the rest of your book. Good writing is still imperative, but the art is the hook.

  12. Comic Books, Self-Publishing and the Vanity Press | What Would Spidey Do? Says:

    [...] Johanna Draper Carlson of Comics Worth Reading pondered why self-published comics are treated differ… These sources rely on publishers to serve as a filter, believing them to have winnowed out lower-quality books, so that the big name becomes a way to vouch for the quality of the material. [...]

  13. Thoughts on Self-Publishing: Where Do You Stand? | Sara Crawford's Writing Blog Says:

    […] Still, some critics say that self-publishing is diminishing the overall quality of books that are being put out there, and charging $2.99 for a book on Amazon is undervaluing the hard work that goes into creating a book. Others call it “vanity publishing,” and they argue that it’s arrogant to assume you don’t need an editor before publishing a book. (Although many self-published authors still use editors, I should point out.) Many newspapers and mainstream publications refuse to even accept queries to review self-published works, as pointed out on Comics Worth Reading. […]

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